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Czechs to get trade benefits

Published Oct. 16, 2005

President Bush welcomed Czechoslovakia leader Vaclav Havel to the White House on Tuesday, promising his country new trade benefits and hailing his journey from political prisoner to president as the symbol of Eastern Europe's dramatic transformation. Bush, noting that Czechoslovakia has not asked the United States for economic aid but only the opportunity to trade freely, said he was immediately waiving trade restrictions that had been imposed on Prague when emigration was sharply curtailed under Communist rule.

As soon as a new trade agreement can be negotiated between the two countries, Czechoslovakia will be given most-favored-nation trade benefits, meaning that its exports will be subject to the lowest possible tariffs.

Bush also authorized the Export-Import Bank to help finance trade with Czechoslovak companies and said Washington would back Czechoslovakia's request for readmission to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In addition, Bush said Peace Corps volunteers would be sent to Czechoslovakia by autumn to teach English.

Havel's appearance in Washington, though, was less an occasion for business than for celebration _ both for him and his hosts.

Only a year ago the playwright and human rights campaigner was imprisoned by the Communists then ruling Prague for trying to lay a wreath at the grave of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself to death as a protest after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Addressing Havel on the White House lawn after their 2{ hours of talks, Bush said: "Mr. President, your life has been one of miraculous transformations, from the world of drama to the world of dissent; from the life of the artist to the life of the activist; and of course in the space of just one short year, the most miraculous journey of all, from prison to the presidency.

"President Havel, Czechoslovakia has turned to you to lead the way. And is it not fitting for a nation that each day writes a new page in its history, to have elected a playwright as its president?"

Havel, 53, is the first of Eastern Europe's new rulers to visit Washington since the upheavals there last year, though Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, who holds no formal government post in Poland, came last November following an itinerary similar to that scheduled for Havel.

The Czechoslovak president and his entourage, which included not only cabinet ministers but also some of the student leaders who sparked the revolution that toppled the Communists and brought him to power on Dec. 29, evinced a combination of ingenuousness and steely conviction.

An awareness of their remarkable change of fortunes was apparent in the bemused, can-you-believe-all-this looks Havel and his aides kept shooting at one another as they were escorted around town by brawny Secret Service agents talking into their wired lapels.

Bush also told Havel that NATO "will continue to play a vital role in assuring stability and security in Europe," and "America will continue to play its part, including a strong military presence for our security and for Europe's."

Havel and his foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, have said that both the United States and the Soviet Union need to eventually remove all their troops from Europe and that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact need to dissolve into some sort of pan-European security organization.

Briefing reporters after Havel's meeting with the president, assistant secretary of state Raymond Seitz said the Czechoslovak leader made no such requests during the meeting.